If all goes as planned, Facebook will finally pull the trigger later this month on its long-salivated-over IPO. The deal could value the company in the neighborhood of $100 billion, making founder and CEO Mark Elliot Zuckerberg’s own unusually large stake worth $25 billion. It is a huge sum, even in context. Zuckerberg’s impending fortune is more money than Wal-Mart’s 10,000-plus stores made last year. It’s more than Wall Street paid in bonuses to New Yorkers last year. And it has been amassed in only eight years by a 27-year-old who not long ago passed out business cards reading “I’m CEO, bitch.”
The Zuckerberg most people know is the one depicted by The Social Network: nerdy, insecure, and shady—in no way a mature adult who’s earned such massive wealth. His awkward public appearances over the years have not improved that impression. Zuckerberg may have written the original code for Facebook, the common view of him goes, but the company’s success since then—the service is now used by nearly one-eighth of the world’s population—has come more despite him than because of him. He was just in the right place at the right time.
But this view sells Zuckerberg massively short. Getting a company to grow as fast as Facebook has is extraordinarily difficult, even when users do a lot of the work. It’s even more challenging when you go in having never raised so much as a dollar from investors or managed a single employee, and you’re fighting to stay ahead of some of the richest, most aggressive, and most talented companies in the world.
“Mark has done two things in his twenties,” a colleague of Zuckerberg says. “He has built a global company, and he has grown up.” The second one made the first possible. When early mistakes risked an employee mutiny, Zuckerberg knuckled down and learned how to lead. He made himself the pupil of some of the best bosses in business but had the maturity never to let outsiders sway his overall vision. He got adept at hiring the right people, and, more important, firing senior employees whom the company had outgrown. Appalled at the way he was portrayed in The Social Network, Zuckerberg initially wanted nothing to do with the movie—then, deciding not to let it define him, he rented out theaters in a Mountain View cineplex and bused the entire company over to see it.
“Was he lucky?” another early colleague of Zuckerberg says. “Of course. We’re all ridiculously lucky. But you also make your own luck. The world has overlooked how great Mark is as a CEO.” He was, yes, in the right place at the right time—but he also has leadership qualities that really set him apart.
As Facebook embarks on its IPO “road show,” the question of just how good Zuckerberg is will trail it: His control of the company is such that a bet on the company’s stock is a bet on him. Investors will be wagering on an entrepreneur who’s committed himself to getting better and better as a leader. But they’ll also be betting on one whose commitment to his long-term vision is so deep that he just might drive Wall Street crazy.
When Zuckerberg created “Thefacebook,” there were already similar services on other college campuses. Columbia had one. Stanford had one. Yale had one. At Harvard, Zuckerberg’s schoolmates the Winklevoss brothers had, famously, been trying to get one off the ground for months. Meanwhile, out in the real world, Friendster had amassed more than 2 million users. There was MySpace. There was AOL, which had established the “friend” concept almost a decade earlier with its instant-messaging system’s Buddy Lists.
Today, all those other social networks are effectively toast, while Facebook is closing in on 1 billion users. Why? Because Facebook has executed better. And that starts with Zuckerberg’s formidable instincts.
All great consumer-technology products share two attributes, which is that they are cool and easy to use. From the beginning, Zuckerberg knew how to make products that were cool and easy to use. He didn’t “overbuild” Facebook, packing it so full of features that people couldn’t figure out how to use it. He made “uptime” a huge early priority, only rolling out Facebook to new schools when he was certain that the company’s servers and software could handle the traffic load. These steps sound like no-brainers, but they trip up a lot of technology start-ups. Stanford’s predecessor to Facebook, for example, was so complicated that it never really caught on. Friendster grew so fast that its infrastructure got swamped: People wanted to log on, but they couldn’t. A year later, when Friendster finally fixed the problem, its U.S. users were gone.